The Simple Beauty of Native American Pottery

I have been in awe of the beauty of Native American Indian pottery from the American Southwest for some time now. As my interest grows and I learn more, I realize how much there is to know and understand. My appreciation of both the old styles of pottery and new interpretations by today’s generation of potters will happily keep me learning about the artists and their work for years.

The elegant, sweeping design of a coil vase mimics the coils of clay used to build this piece of traditional coil pottery. Form meets function as the coils become the design element of this gorgeous pot.

Last year, before leaving for our tea buying trip to Japan, we stopped off along the way in Albuquerque  and purchased some traditionally-made   pottery to take as gifts to colleagues and traditional potters with whom we would be visiting in Japan. We wanted to take them a style of pottery different than their style of pottery ( and different than all East Asian pottery in fact ) and something truly American.   We chose an Acoma seedpot and a Jemez  coil vase, similar to the one pictured above.

Our hosts were fascinated by the pottery. As potters and artisans, they were interested to learn about the craft of the pottery – how it was made, how it was decorated and how it was fired.  We explained that both cultural influences and the practical matters of how the pottery is made were responsible for ‘shaping’ the pots, and that these factors  are as integral to the essence of this pottery as their Japanese techniques and values are to the pottery that they make.

They were curious about the clay and the way in which the clay was shaped and worked by hand. The earth and plant pigments used to decorate the pieces brought the most astonishment, as did the color photographs that we brought of the landscape of the American Southwest. This pottery is so different from what they are familiar with that we knew we had made a good choice.

I wish that Native American pueblo pottery was as well known across all regions of the USA as it is in the Southwest. These artisans deserve recognition and respect for their work and talent. Those here and abroad who collect Native American pottery are fiercely loyal and are determined to build important collections. Museums are adding pieces to nascent collections, and galleries across the USA often feature the work of Indian potters. But more people need to be exposed to this pottery, which, by collectible standards, are still very reasonably priced.

Most Native American artists in the Southwest live on or near one of the Pueblos of the northern and lower Rio Grande river, close to extended family and the center of their culture. Many of these pueblos maintain centuries old pottery making traditions ( and many other fine arts, as well ). Today’s most well-known potters are children, nieces or nephews or grandchildren of legendary potters who contributed significant advances to the pottery making tradition of their particular pueblo.

These pueblos are spread along the Rio Grande River from Taos ( north of Santa Fe ) to Albuquerque and west to the Arizona border.  Most potters still work with many of the same expressive design elements that their ancestors used.

A contemporary interpretation of         a traditional, old-style figure made       by Lisa Holt and Harlan Reano

But young artists are introducing contemporary design and movement in new directions, too. In the world of pottery collectors, all of these styles have been embraced as new work and ideas advance the art form. I admire Pueblo pottery in all of its glorious shapes, styles and designs, but for me it is the old-style, thin -walled, traditional, polychrome pottery painted with simple, symbolic motifs in earth pigments that appeals to my magpie eye the most.

Potters from the Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna, Santo Domingo, Zia, and Zuni pueblos are known for this style of pottery. Cross over into Arizona and the Hopi too, create finely painted, highly detailed and stylized pots.  Feast for a minute on these fine, eye-dazzling examples of painted pots by two acclaimed artists of the Acoma pueblo. These pots express precision and exuberance in painting at its most difficult and best.

stylized ‘eye-dazzler’ pots from Acoma potter Victoria Sandorino

    Traditional Acoma seed-pot with applied insects by artist Carolyn Concho

Polychrome pots are painted with designs applied by brush ( yucca or modern, adapted brushes ) in earth-tone pigments. The palette features blacks, tans, ocher and brownish-rust colors ( the natural colors of the Southwest ) applied to a solid white or tan slip painted background.

In the past, pueblo pottery had a utilitarian function or had ceremonial uses. Large and medium sized pots – ollas -were made to collect water. Bowls in varying sizes and widths were made to hold food and foodstuffs, and offerings to spirit deities. Today, the pottery is made in these same shapes, but often with a new injection of creativity and artistic flair. Most artists will say that their pots are completely functional, just as the pots made by their ancestors were. But for collectors, these works are purchased strictly as objects of beauty and fine art.

Although some similarities exist, each Pueblo has a recognizable style.  Potters develop their own style based not as much on the shapes of their pieces ( which can be similar to others ) or the colors used ( also similar to other potters ) but by the designs and motifs that they emblazon on their pots.

A display of stunning Pueblo pots

All pueblos use geometric elements such as lines, arcs, circles, and more in their designs. Some of these design elements mimic patterns found on ancient potsherds attributed to the Membres culture. Acoma and Zia ollas and vases often feature roadrunners, flowers and parrots in their design, and small insects and frogs appear on tiny seed pots. Zuni potters feature animal designs, such as frogs and lizards, butterflies, feathered serpents, and heartline-deer.

Highly-polished black pottery from the San Ildefonso pueblo  can be deeply carved or feature designs painted with a trademark black on black technique. Similarly, the Santa Clara pueblo makes highly polished red-brown earth tone pottery, which is most frequently carved. Very complementary one to another, these pieces are different in execution and complexity.

Dramatic and stunning carved container by Nancy Youngblood

          a classic pot from an unknown             Santa Clara artist

I copied the following information from a sign in the Buschsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This museum is a must see for anyone visiting Santa Fe who wishes to see a fantastic collection of historic pots plus  exhibitions of contemporary artists and their work. The sign explained the steps of traditional pottery making and polychrome painting in a concise way. I have embellished a few lines to make the meaning clear as I was not able to reproduce the accompanying images featured in the exhibition.

Clay is living. Potters speak to it, pray to it, revere it. Gathering clay is hard work and once collected, it is dried and then soaked to remove impurities. It is sieved to clean it further. A temper is then added to the clay to reduce shrinkage and cracking during firing and drying.

Traditionally made pots are formed using the ‘coil and scrape’ method. As fingers pinch clay and roll it into coils, successive coils of clay are used to build the pots. Coil junctures are smoothed with a curved edge tool such as pottery shard. But potters have also adapted popsicle sticks, hairbrush handles, can lids, and kitchen knives.

After excess clay is scraped away to achieve a uniform thickness, the pot is smoothed with sandpaper.

Next the potter applies the slip, a watery clay mixture. While this is still damp, the pot is polished with a smooth river stone. Painted decoration is applied according to established traditions, using earth and plant pigments, but each potter paints in his or her own individual way.

Although some pottery is now fired in electric kilns, most is fired outdoors. Several pots are placed on a grate, and fuel – usually cow or sheep manure – is stacked around the pottery and then mounded to cover the entire fire pit. The firing is a delicate stage – imperfections in the clay or air bubbles can cause a pot to explode, often damaging other pots. While warm, the pots are removed from the fire and wiped clean.

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